What I Learned as I Implemented Antiracist and Decolonizing Practices in My Anthropology Course

Liz Soluri is a biological anthropology professor at Cabrillo College and coauthor of Laboratory Manual and Workbook for Biological Anthropology, 2e. She is especially interested in pedagogy and issues of student learning, and her ongoing research focuses on redesigning, implementing, and evaluating effective teaching methods for undergraduate anthropology courses, particularly biological anthropology. In this blog post, Professor Soluri discusses her key lessons learned from developing antiracist and decolonizing practices in her anthropology class.

I am white, and I live with the privileges this affords. Because I am also an ally to students, colleagues, and friends of color, I work hard to leverage my privileges in support of racial justice. In addition to other equity work, I apply antiracist and decolonizing principles in my teaching. I use the term “antiracist” to refer to intentional efforts to acknowledge and deconstruct racism and white supremacy and “decolonizing” to refer to educational practices that validate identities and highlight the resilience of Indigenous communities in the face of colonialism. Thus I hope my courses are an opportunity for students of color to connect with our discipline and see themselves in this work, while also creating an opportunity for white students to recognize their privilege and identify strategies for promoting racial justice. This is an ongoing journey, and it can feel lonely at times without the support of colleagues who are willing to stretch themselves and try things along with you. Here, I share some of the key lessons I have learned so far in the hope that it helps you on your journey.

Times change and content should too.

I have taught introductory anthropology in community colleges for 12 years. Like many of my colleagues, I believed these survey courses should include all the information I learned (20 years ago) because it was fundamental to our discipline. Of course, over the years I have revised and added content to feature changes in knowledge, such as new fossil discoveries, and this usually meant having to trim something else to make room. Similarly, as our discipline and academia in general come to terms with their colonial and racist history, it is essential that we adjust our content to reflect this. Give yourself permission to trim content and make room for the latest research from our colleagues of color. For example, I asked myself whether it was more important to me that an introductory student know every single hominin fossil species ever discovered or whether it was more important that they know about the African scientists and excavators behind some of the most recent and compelling discoveries. Ultimately, I chose to group a few fossil species together, which provided the time I needed for a discussion of why it is crucial that African scholars have opportunities to lead research projects, particularly in their own countries. Decolonization is more than training and hiring Indigenous scholars. White faculty must also be willing to teach the work of scholars of color to our undergraduates. We must promote the valuable contributions scholars of color make, even when it means removing a traditional or famous example of scholarship from a White researcher. Not doing so reinforces our colonial history rather than overcoming it.

Embrace difficult topics.

Too often over the years, I glossed over the cultural and social dimensions of race in my biological anthropology courses. I would say, “We will focus on the biological in this course, and I encourage you to take a cultural anthropology course to learn more about the other side of the topic.” However, most of my students never took another anthropology course. Biological anthropology was the class they took as nonmajors to satisfy a science requirement. This was their only chance to see the world anthropologically, and I blew it. In recent years, I have added content to my biological anthropology course that allows us to explore race from the biological dimension and as part of lived experience. We discuss the history of the race concept, and we explore how race affects people’s social and cultural lives today. Rather than ignoring the topic or assuming that someone else is teaching it in another course, I incorporated it into mine and assured that each of my students would leave with this understanding.

Be intentional and explicit.

I slowly decolonized my syllabus over several years. I swapped out readings and incorporated more research from scholars of color and women scholars, such as Dr. Zeresenay Alemseged and Dr. Debra Bolter. Eventually I realized I had done this without talking about the scholars’ racial and gender identities and without explaining why it mattered. I relied on the students to somehow recognize my subtle shift, except my students did not know whose research we would traditionally have focused on. For them, we were just reading some interesting things by some people. I now specifically explain my focus on women scholars and scholars of color. It is noted as one of my goals on the first page of the syllabus, and it is folded into our discussions. When learning about the work of a scholar of color, we may specifically discuss how their identity and experience has shaped their research or how our discipline has been traditionally biased against these scholars but could be modified to be more inclusive. Students have responded well to these changes. They have thoughtfully engaged in discourse on inequities and suggested remedies such as pay equity and changes to recruitment strategies. Some students have noted that they personally identify with the researchers of color and that they feel included and represented in ways they haven’t regularly felt in other science courses.

Start now. It is okay to start small.

One of the biggest hurdles in applying these principles is the feeling that everything in a course must be changed at once. Since this is overwhelming, we are likely to delay making any changes whatsoever. Avoid this trap. Instead, choose one or two small changes you can make right now. Next semester, choose one or two more. For example, I started modifying my coverage of race by including the history of the concept and its inherent bias. I then worked up to adding an activity and opportunity for reflection about race in our lived experiences. Each one of us has the power to break down the racist and colonial practices of our discipline and academia more broadly. If we do not do so, we are silently reinforcing it. That is not the anthropology I want to be a part of or the career I want to lead. I am actively choosing to change my educational practices, and I encourage us all to do the same.

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